Celebrate Tu B’Shevat with pomegranates

By Margi Lenga Kahn, Special to the Jewish Light

Tu B’Shevat, which begins at sundown Friday, Jan. 25, is the Jewish New Year of Trees. It is a time for planting trees and celebrating harvests.  One holiday custom is to sample each of the seven species mentioned in the Torah: wheat, barley, olives, grapes, figs, dates, and pomegranates. While the Tu B’Shevat seder, a Sephardic-Kabbalistic tradition dating back to the 15th century, celebrates all seven species, I’d like to focus on just one of them, a favorite and perhaps the most mysterious of the seven: the pomegranate.

Pomegranates seem enigmatic to many of us and have thus caused cooks to avoid them. It’s easy to see why. The fruit has a hard red outer shell that can’t be peeled. Inside is a maze of chambers lined with inedible white pith. Clinging to that pith are clusters of glistening seeds, ranging in color from white to red, called arils.  Though Jewish lore claims there are 613 arils in each pomegranate, one for each of the 613 mitzvot in the Torah, many of us scratch our heads over how to use those arils in our kitchens. 

Looking for some advice, I turned to Tu B’Shevat’s homeland, Israel, and, specifically, to one of the primary growers of organic pomegranates there, Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu. This Orthodox kibbutz, home to 120 families, is located in the Valley of Springs, between the Gilboa and the Gilaad ridges. It is committed to maintaining a balance between all eco-systems, namely, air, water, soil, vegetation, wildlife, and mankind.  As such, the kibbutz grows its fruits, vegetables and grains without the use of pesticides. 

I spoke with Sara Goldsmith at the kibbutz. Goldsmith was born in Chicago. She made aliyah with her parents as a child and has been living on Sde Eliyahu for 24 years. She currently manages Bio-Tour Sde Eliyahu and the kibbutz café, Café BBSadeh.

Though pomegranate trees generally grow best in arid climates, like the southern and eastern areas of Israel, growing them organically can be a challenge. 

“Growing organic pomegranates is difficult,” Goldsmith explained, “as there are many pests who like to eat them! Our trees are grown under special netting, which protects them from both birds and pests.”

The juice of the pomegranate, which can be purchased in bottles, is great for flavoring meat sauces or salad dressings. It is also a natural tenderizer for poultry. 

Pomegranate molasses is made by boiling down pomegranate juice to a syrup. It is popular in Mediterranean dishes of roasted meats, chicken, and vegetables.  Locally, you can find the bottled molasses at Global Foods in Kirkwood, at Whole Foods Markets, and elsewhere.

The arils, or seeds, are juicy, sweet, and a tad bit sour. The redder the seed, the sweeter it is. The entire seed is edible and can be eaten out of hand. It can also be used as a garnish for all kinds of savory and sweet dishes, such as salads, poultry, fish, beef, cereals, puddings, and pies. 

I concede that getting to these morsels of lusciousness can be a challenge. Goldsmith offered this rather simple technique. 

“Begin by cutting the pomegranate in half,” she said, “with the crown on one half and the stem on the other. One at a time, hold a half over a bowl and gently tap the fruit with a wooden spoon or a rolling pin. The seeds will magically fall from the shell into the bowl. “

Once the seeds are in the bowl, pull off any remaining pith. Goldsmith recommends wearing an apron when seeding a pomegranate because the juice will stain your clothes. Once opened, the pomegranate should be kept refrigerated in a covered container for a few days. Goldsmith  cautions that it will begin to spoil beyond that time. 

If you need an added reason to finish the fruit before it goes bad, consider the health benefits of pomegranates.  A good source of antioxidants, pomegranate juice has been found to lower blood pressure and bad cholesterol. The juice is high in both potassium and iron and recommended for people who are anemic. Just a quarter cup of seeds provides a significant amount of vitamin C and is a good source of vitamin B6. Drinking a half-cup of juice every day, or eating a large handful of seeds, is a deliciously healthy habit to embrace.

Below are a couple of recipes Goldsmith shared, compliments of Café BISadeh, for using pomegranate juice.  I have included two of my favorite recipes for using the seeds and the molasses. Best wishes for a fruitful Tu BSShevat.

Margi Lenga Kahn is the mother of five and grandmother of four. A cooking instructor at the Kitchen Conservatory, she is currently working on a project to preserve the stories and recipes of heritage cooks. She welcomes your comments and suggestions at [email protected].